How to Use a Water Bath Without Landing in Hot Water

May 26, 2015

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: A hot water bath, called a bain marie, may seem unnecessary and difficult—but the perfect custard you'll have afterward begs to differ.

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Normally, a hot bath sounds relaxing. You get to light a candle, play some cheesy music, and sit in bubbles until your fingers wrinkle like prunes. It’s nice and soothing.

A kitchen hot water bath, known as a bain marie, is a little less calming. It involves boiling water, hot ramekins, and potentially burnt fingers. Yet to make a flan or a crème brûlée, you’ll need to put your custard in a bain marie while it bakes in the oven. The hot water evenly distributes heat around the custard, ensuring that the eggs don’t curdle. It also prevents the top from drying out and splitting before the inside is fully cooked. Without a bain marie, you’ll have a rubbery and cracked dessert. 

More: Why cheesecakes crack, and how to stop it.

For the sake of smooth custard, it’s worth conquering any fear of boiling-hot water. And there are some tricks to making a water bath a little easier. So take a deep breath, put on your oven mitts, and follow these tips:

Find a Perfect Fit
You’ll need two pans—one large and one small. For the small pan, glass or porcelain is best. Metal pans work, but since the custard can burn more easily, you’ll have to watch it more carefully. The large pan, ideally a roasting dish, should have high sides. The small pan should fit snugly inside, with a 1/2- to 1-inch gap around it. If it’s too tight, there won’t be enough water to cook the custard properly. If it’s too loose, you are much more likely to burn yourself. If you’re making individual custards, you’ll want to use ramekins. Just make sure that the ramekins are nestled closely together so that they don’t slide around.

Make it Hot
Use a tea kettle to heat your water. The spout makes pouring water much easier, reducing the likelihood of splashing. Once your water is ready, place the baking dishes in the oven but leave the oven door open. Carefully pour the water into the larger dish and around the sides of the smaller one.

Only Go Halfway
The water just needs to come halfway—not all the way—up the sides of the smaller dish. If there’s too much water, it can splash into the custards and ruin them. If there’s too little, they won’t cook properly. Check on the water level as the custard cooks, making sure that it stays high enough. If it starts to evaporate too quickly, just pour in more hot tap water using a kettle (or a glass measuring cup with a spout).

Exit Gracefully
Once your custard is cooked, it might be tempting to pick up the whole pan and set it down as quickly as possible. Resist that urge, and instead just remove the smaller pan from the oven. Set it on a rack to cool, turn your oven off, and wait a bit. Once the oven is cool, remove the pan of water. It will still be warm, but it shouldn’t be as dangerous.

Now that you have these tips in your back pocket, try using a water bath to make a silky Vietnamese Coffee Flan.

Vietnamese Coffee Flan

Serves 6 to 8

3/4 cup sugar
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
3 3/4 cups whole milk
5 large eggs
4 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee dissolved in 4 teaspoons hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Do you have any water bath tricks? Let us know in the comments!

Photos by Bobbi Lin

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Shed
  • Caroline Thomas
    Caroline Thomas
  • Brooklyn
  • bonnie
  • Lynn Slater Miller
    Lynn Slater Miller
Hillary Pollak

Written by: Hillary Pollak


Shed July 1, 2021
Hi after a while of baking time, the water starts boiling inside and splashing all over. I only added water as directed. Will it damage the oven? And if the oven is fan operated how can we set the heating elements?
Caroline T. August 3, 2016
Any suggestions for cooking a cheesecake in a springform pan in a bainmarie? Even with 2 layers of heavy duty foil I often find water has made its way in.
Sunnydrop September 13, 2016
I had the same problem too until I saw on Masterchef TV that 3 layers of foil were necessary to prevent water from seeping in. I tried it and it worked.
Brooklyn January 4, 2016
Does this work with cheesecake?
bonnie May 26, 2015
Having made literally thousands of creme brulee and other custard based desserts, I have found two things: It is not necessary to have the water for the bain marie boiling (super hot tap water works just fine), but my big secret for smooth as silk custard based desserts is to make the batter the day before baking and let it rest over night. Cover with plastic wrap sitting on top the batter (so a skin does not form) and once cool, put it in the refrigerator over night. Bake off the next day and the results are incredible. This was taught to me by one of my employers, Henri, a French chef who taught me many great things.
AntoniaJames May 27, 2015
So true, bonnie. Thanks for pointing this out. You also get a much better tasting custard. ;o)
Lynn S. May 26, 2015
Sure wish you had used a better picture for this flan (creme caramel). The bubble holes in the sides, just below the caramel show that it was over-baked. A smooth, silky custard will be done when there's thin, golden ring around the edge and the top is only a touch raised. When a slight shake of the pan makes the custard jiggle firmly, it's done, but won't have those swiss-cheese holes in the sides.
Can I. May 26, 2015
Another tip for making sure your custard dish doesn't slide around in the larger pan is to put a dish towel in the bottom of the larger pan before adding the custard dish and the water. Depending on the size of the larger pan, you may need to fold the towel; it should be completely submerged in the water.
AntoniaJames May 26, 2015
Not a tip about the method per se, but just a suggestion. I use a bain marie when making bread puddings of all kinds. It makes all the difference in the world as it produces a lighter, silkier custard. ;o)
Kenzi W. May 26, 2015
Oh, I love that. Will have to try.
AntoniaJames May 27, 2015
Kenzi, I also use a bain-marie for this pudding that's similar to a bread pudding, but is made with pound cake (or leftover fruit cake or dry plum pudding) instead of bread:
aargersi May 26, 2015
I always start my flan in a cold oven with cold water as opposed to heating both - I find the the gentle heating up process makes for a smoother custard ... I just add 15 or 20 minutes t the cooktime to acocunt for the heating-up period. It's easier this way too! No burns!
Laura415 April 22, 2017
Interesting...I just checked with CI and they recommend to use boiling water after trying cold water/hot oven, room temp water/hot oven and boiling water/hot oven. I would have thought they would try a cold water/cold oven combo.
Terely H. April 22, 2018
Great ideas. Thank you!
My question:
When I use aluminum loaf pans in a water bath it turns the part immersed in the water dark gray. Any way to avoid that?
Julio P. November 28, 2018
I need help whit that too.
Idaly R. May 18, 2020
I’ve been looking for a solution to this for several months too. Only solution I’ve seen is using a ceramic or glasss pan with metal pan, not metal and metal. I’m looking for another option like adding baking powder, baking soda, vinegar something. I am looking to make many of these and would like to use the large aluminum pans used in chaffing stands for the Bain Marie.